The original Symphonic Fantasies album was an unprecedented production, featuring ambitious, immensely dramatic orchestral suites arranging four of Square Enix's most popular series - Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Kingdom Hearts. It proved popular enough to spawn a number of repeat orchestral performances in Europe and Japan, the latter of which has in turn been recorded as a new album release, Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo. I would never have expected the original album to be improved upon, but in many ways this new edition indeed outdoes its predecessor. For any who missed the original Symphonic Fantasies, Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo is a must-hear demonstration of dramatic classically inspired orchestral game music at its best.
I've talked in detail about the four main suite's arrangements in my review of the original Symphonic Fantasies, so readers curious about the arrangements themselves please see that review. (In short, they're superb.) This will instead focus purely on the differences between the two releases.
The most obvious change in Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo is its inclusion of the previously absent "Encore: Final Boss Suite", featuring boss themes from all four of the album's featured series: "Destati" from Kingdom Hearts, "Meridian Dance" from Secret of Mana, "World Revolution" from Chrono Trigger, and "One-Winged Angel" plus "Kefka" from Final Fantasy VII and VI. The addition of Kefka's theme as a sort of chaotic counter to "One-Winged Angel" was new to the Tokyo concert, and though in a few instances the consequent shifts in key and tempo can be extreme, it hardly spoils the novelty of hearing two seemingly completely disparate themes (and infamous bosses) go at it. The progression between the three preceding boss themes is perfect, particularly the exhilarating "Meridian Dance".
The "Kingdom Hearts" suite was the greatest surprise of the original Symphonic Fantasies. As someone who had never particularly cared for Kingdom Hearts music up to that point, I was amazed by the magical quality and poignancy of it. It's also the one suite of the album where I clearly prefer the original recording to the one in Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo. The emotion in this suite lies in its solo instrumentals - Benyamin Nuss's piano and the solo violin - and they're sometimes undermixed in the Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo version, making it more difficult to relish some exquisite performances. I've heard the argument that the original Symphonic Fantasies is actually overmixed - that the Tokyo version is more accurate for a classical recording. But as a soundtrack fan I'm in it more for drama and emotion than acoustic authenticity, and for this suite the original recording better provides that, even if the arrangement itself is as magical as ever.
The "Secret of Mana" suite is the most ambitious of the album, combining instrumental ambient effects and a myriad of unconventional techniques with orchestral-choral awe and one of the great title themes in all of gaming. Of all the album's suites, this is the one I thought couldn't possibly be improved upon, yet in several ways the Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo recording does. The beautiful main theme is performed with a slower, more deliberate tempo making it even more dramatic, while a more frenetic performance given to the sole battle segment increases the intensity there. Several added ambient effects (all performed by the orchestra) contribute to the naturalistic quality of the piece, and the recording as a whole sounds nearer the listener. Only in the intro and outro do a few very small additions feel superfluous in comparison, but as a whole this incredible piece is at its best in Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo.
If Kingdom Hearts was the most surprising suite of Symphonic Fantasies and Secret of Mana was the most ambitious, then the "Chrono Trigger / Chrono Cross" suite was its great crowd-pleaser, seamlessly spanning the title themes, character themes, and most famous boss theme of two enduringly popular titles in a way that felt like a complete adventure in itself. This was actually the only suite in the original recording to suffer from a couple obvious performance errors - not at all deal-breaking but nagging still - and thankfully that's been remedied in Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo. And as with the other suites, the orchestra in full sounds clearer and has more presence. Come the battle with Magus, prepare to be impressed. The same issue as Kingdom Hearts with the solo violin being undermixed is present, but the fantastic performance and improved recording as a whole nicely compensate. After listening to the suite many times on Symphonic Fantasies and already loving it, I find myself enjoying it even more here.
The final series suite of the album, "Final Fantasy", was the only one in the original Symphonic Fantasies with which I wasn't especially impressed. Though it had its moments, the arrangement lacked the perfect progression of the other three suites, the orchestral performance was at times underwhelming, and the choral accompaniment detracted from the drama as much as it contributed. And while I still have issues with the use of a certain feathery creature's theme in the suite, nearly every other aspect has been improved in Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo - substantially. Nowhere is this more apparent than the suite's three orchestral-choral battle arrangements. A much faster tempo in FFVII "Fighting" hugely benefits the intensity of the piece, while the performance of FFV "Battle on the Big Bridge" boasts greater power and drama. And the rendition of FFVII "Bombing Mission" simply blows the previous version out of the water - the slightly stuffy quality of the original's choral performance is now replaced with sheer might, while the addition of frantic bell tolls at the climax ramps the intensity up to a completely new level. The Final Fantasy suite now feels like it deserves a place with the other three, and is well worth hearing even for fans familiar with the many other orchestral arrangements for the series.
I'll always treasure the original Symphonic Fantasies recording for its unique qualities and nuances (a sentiment any Dragon Quest symphonic suite fan or classical collector can likely appreciate), and for its immaculate rendition of the Kingdom Hearts suite. But if given a choice between one album or the other, the added encore, much-improved Final Fantasy suite, and various small improvements to the arrangements and recording make Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo the one to get. It's the definitive edition of an essential orchestral album.